The first time I knew I was reading Grant Morrison, he just completed his groundbreaking JLA #1 in 1996. I had, in all probability, read an issue or two of his Doom Patrol run or his Gothic arc from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. Apart from the strange and surreal image of a painting eating Paris, or the horrific sequence in which Animal Man had lost his right arm after being attacked by a mutant rat, I did not know – really – what I was getting into. In Morrison’s hands, the Justice League was transformed from a boring slapstick comic into a modern day myth. Superman was no longer the vulnerable ninny who couldn’t catch Lex Luthor because he forgot to remember to gather evidence while destroying the villain’s robots. He wrestled with angels, fought a sentient sun, and defeated planet-sized alien starfish with the help of a dream god and the faith of a child.
Morrison has since penned some of my favorite superhero stories: New X-Men, The Invisibles, Seven Soliders of Victory, and All-Star Superman, and he is the author of what is – for me – a most anticipated forthcoming run on Action Comics with illustrator Rags Morales. I picked up his book on superheroes without hesitation. What begins as a fairly straightforward take on the history of the superhero (repeating many of the facts enumerated by Gerard Jones, Les Daniels, and David Hajou in earlier books on the industry) becomes an intricate, autobiographical, psychedelic, kabbalic, and even activist tour de force that only someone with the legendary confidence and ambition of Grant Morrison could complete.
As a history of the superhero, Supergods begins in a somewhat pedestrian way, by sketching the early histories of Superman and Batman. Where he departs, interestingly, is in his characterization of the two icons. For Morrison, Superman is a classically socialist character while Batman represents all of the values of neo-liberal capitalism. “If the dystopian nightmare visions of the age foresaw a dehumanized, mechanized world,” Morrison argues “Superman offered another possibility: an image of a fiercely human tomorrow that delivered the spectacle of triumphant individualism exercising its sovereignty over the implacable forces of industrial oppression” (7). Batman, on the other hand, “was the ultimate capitalist hero. [...] He was a millionaire who vented his childlike fury on the criminal classes of the lower orders” (26). The entire narrative of Supergods revolves around Morrison’s attempt to answer why a socialist hero like Superman became relatively less popular than his capitalist shadow in the later decades of the 20th century. Though he never explicitly says so, the history Morrison sketches is one of an America becoming increasingly frightened of the homegrown Rooseveltian revolutionary potential of Superman, who “was slowly transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse: the betrayer of his own creators,” while embracing the capitalist libertarianism of Batman (16). Perhaps Superman’s decline mirrors that of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in America, the seeming triumph of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism” (the idea that capitalism is not perfect, but no viable alternative exists), and the belief that the mistakes of the rich have to be righted on the backs of the poor. In this environment, there is little wonder why the smirking defender of the oppressed became, in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a dupe for a totalitarian and ageless Ronald Regan.
The historical details become much more interesting as Morrison recounts the “dark age” of superheroes began in the ’80s, and extending into the ’90s. I was particularly interested in his depiction of Alan Moore, a figure he squarely locates in the dark “realist” camp of comic writers. His critique of Watchmen is intriguing, as he characterizes Moore as an intricate realist architect creating a fictional ediface that ultimately crumbles under the weight of its own importance:
For all its pretensions to realism, Watchmen laid bare its own synthetic nature in every cunningly orchestrated line, lacking in any of the chaos, dirt, and non sequitor arbitrariness of real life. This overwhelmingly artificial quality of the narrative, which I found almost revolting at age twenty five, is what fascinates me most about it now, oddly enough. [...] I prefered the sprawl and turbulence of Marvelman, which felt more like the real messy world than the stifling, self-regarding, perfect yet mean-spirited microcosmos of Watchmen, but I was alone in my negative judgment. (204)
I had always considered Morrison and Moore as two sides of the same coin. Both magicians. Both interested in metafiction. Both concerned with transforming neglected and ignored heroes into compelling characters. After reading Morrison’s account, Morrison emerges as the Gilles Deleuze to Moore’s Jacques Derrida. Moore’s magical play and metafictional awareness is the product of intricate scripts, massive research, and foreboding footnotes – just as in Derrida, differance is the product of rigorous, almost religious adherence to the analysis of the text. Morrison’s flights of ontological fancy are as seductive and powerful as Deleuze’s intensely addictive stream of textual becoming.
The most powerful chapter, in this regard, is his reflection on writing The Invisibles. Here, we get a first-hand account of Morrison’s encounter with extraterrestrials and their impact upon his imagination.
I had fully entered a space that felt both vaulted and enclosed, like an immense cathedral but also infinite in horizon. It was as if infinity and eternity could be finite in horizon and bottled inside something much bigger than both. The space was profound azure blue in all directions, laced with bright silver lines and grid traceries that came and went, ghost blueprints zipping up and down an invisible monofilament scaffolding all around me. I could not feel my body or open my eyes in the physical world. I wouldn’t have wanted to. My real eyes were wide-open here. Stranger yet, my arrive in this place felt like a homecoming. All the cares and fears of the mortal world were gone, replaced by the hum of immaculate industry, divine creativity, and, through it all, that ummistakable always-known sense of deep familiarity, of belonging and completion. (263)
Passages like these are vintage Morrison. And he sprinkles these visionary insights throughout the book. The only drawback is that Morrison sometimes feels the need to apologize for his ontological flourishes. For example, he apologizes for his application of Iain Spence’s concept of the Sekhmet Hypothesis, which links cultural behavior with twenty-two year old sunspot patterns. Morrison preempts his explanation with a statement that makes him sound like he belongs on late-night television or as a new-age guru selling fish oil to unsuspecting customers in California. “You may be able to find all kinds of examples to refute this data,” Morrison hedges, “but first bear in mind that I’ve used this predictive model to great effect and no small financial reward, and trust me when I say I’m passing it on as a tip, not as a belief system” (301). I prefer Morrison’s bold and unapologetic yogi to his modern metaphysical salesman.
Morrison’s history also gives us invaluable insight into the company politics of Marvel and DC during the 2000′s, a mostly neglected era in comic studies. We learn about the rise of Warren Ellis, the tyranny of the geek in Millar’s Wanted, the triumphs and pitfalls of comic movies in the ’90s and ’00s, the graphic negativity of Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, and the rise of the everyday superheroes patrolling the real-world streets of Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found his description of writing All-Star Superman the most poignant. Morrison recounts how the idea to have Superman face his death mirrored the long decline of his father. The dark descriptions of a man battling strokes and cancer, holding on to his life with fearlessness, but having “no appeal, no reward or censure” are refracted by the beautiful passages of Morrison performing tonglen meditations for his newly-dead father, beating Celtic drums at his funeral, and observing a rainbow afterwords (406).
The final chapters of Morrison’s text passionately illustrate the power of stories. If anything, Supergods is an appeal to stop miming the nihilistic and cynical messages delivered by cable news and to reach for something higher and better than our fears. “If we perpetually reinforce the notion that human beings are somehow unnatural aberrations adrift in the ever-encroaching Void,” Morrison screams, “that story will take root in impressionable minds and inform the art, politics, and general discourse in anti-life, anti-creative, and potentially catastrophic ways” (404). But if we create better stories and celebrate better heroes, perhaps we can create a better world. For all of its (sometimes hokey) optimism, Morrison’s Supergods delivers what no other history of superheroes has ever delivered: a passionate call-to-arms to see stories as an evolutionary catalyst for a better and more just existence.